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Diary of a Divorce Lawyer: February 20214th February 2021 Family Law
Shortly after the Christmas holidays and one day after the school term had started, we found ourselves in lockdown once
again. Whilst on this occasion a vaccine is on the horizon, it is relatively clear that restrictions will be in place and schools closed until at least the February half term. Once again, many families have been thrown into chaos, contemplating how they will balance home schooling and childcare, whilst continuing to work from home.
January is always a busy time of year for family lawyers. This January has been no exception but there has been a noticeable increase in disputes regarding children and issues of domestic violence. According to government guidelines, children of separated parents can continue to see both parents in their different homes, wherever they are within England and Wales, providing it is safe for them to do so. During the first week in January, I was contacted by Mark who lives in Hampton. He had divorced from Nicky last year and they have two children together, James (9) and Sophie (6) who also live in Hampton.
Contact arrangements were agreed late last year, without the need for court intervention. Every other weekend the children stay with Mark and one night a week. Additional holiday contact was also agreed from Boxing Day to the New Year. On Christmas Eve, Nicky and the children developed symptoms and tested positive for coronavirus. Their symptoms were not serious but in accordance with government guidelines, they isolated for two weeks. Sadly this meant that contact over Christmas was cancelled.
When the government then announced the third lockdown, Nicky decided unilaterally, that she did not want the children to travel between her and Mark’s household. In the current climate balancing many factors to include the risk of infection versus the benefit of the children spending quality time with both parents, is a difficult decision. However, unless there are specific health concerns with either parent or the children then each parent should facilitate the child seeing the other. There may need to be alternative arrangements to those that are in place pre-lockdown given that schools are shut and travel may be challenging. In this particular situation there were no specific health concerns or reasons why contact should not continue.
Following failed negotiations, an application for a court order dealing with contact arrangements was issued at court so that contact between Mark and the children could resume as soon as possible. The reality is that the application is unlikely to be dealt with by the court before the third lockdown concludes but a court order, whether ordered by court or agreed, will give both parents more certainty around child arrangements. For men and women experiencing domestic abuse, coronavirus restrictions have made it harder than ever to find somewhere to turn.
Antonia called me early last week. She lives in a two-bedroom flat that she owns jointly with her boyfriend, Ben. Relations had broken down and Ben, who had begun to drink heavily after losing his job as a chef, had become threatening towards her on a daily basis. The situation reached a head when, during a row, Ben pushed Antonia against a wall causing her to hit her head badly. The police were called and Ben was asked to leave the property and he went to stay overnight at his mum’s house. He had returned the next day and emotions were high when he refused to leave the flat. Antonia was very scared with nowhere else to go. She had sought advice from a domestic violence charity, Refuge. I explained to Antonia that she could apply to Court for a Non-Molestation Order to protect her from Ben’s abusive behaviour and an Occupation Order excluding him from the property. This would provide her with a ‘safe zone’ for a period of time. Domestic violence applications are considered ‘work that must be done’ and are therefore being given priority over other family matters at this time. The hearing took place without notice to Ben at the Family Court in Kingston, the next day. An order was obtained preventing Ben from harassing Antonia and forcing him to leave the flat.
The matter will be returned to court when Ben will have an opportunity to respond to the allegations. Abusive behaviour is not limited to violence. It can also be threats of violence, emotional abuse or coercive control, for example control of finances.